It’s early morning a few days after New Year’s Eve. My other five friends and I get into two cars and set off. We have a 1,600 km long journey ahead of five state departments. Destination: Madzharovo (Маджарово), Bulgaria.
In these places, the Arda River cuts into the limestone deposits of the Eastern Rhodopes with a very deep and wild canyon. Wind and water (the Rhodopes are by no means an arid landscape) have created sharp ridges, rock towers, walls and crevices through their erosive action here, which since time immemorial have served as suitable nesting grounds for the undisputed rulers of the local sky – vultures. In Bulgaria and throughout the Balkans, we can meet three types of vultures. The most common species is the Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), the disproportionately rarer the Black vulture (Aegypius monachus) and the third species is the migratory and smallest Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus).
Vultures don’t have it easy in today’s world. Their numbers throughout Europe are maintained and perhaps even slightly increased thanks to international rescue programs, which include artificial breeding and the release of new individuals back into the wild, the protection of nesting sites and ensuring the supply of food at feedlots. Even then, vulture populations are not won. They are exposed to other risks, such as illegal hunting, pesticides and other toxic substances in the environment, wind power plants, etc.
The “Vultures Back to LIFE” rescue project aims to return vultures to the skies of the Balkans to connect vulture populations in Bulgaria and Greece with other populations in Crimea, the Alps and the Iberian Peninsula. In the 1980s vultures were considered extinct in the Balkans. During the last two decades, an international conservation initiative has led to a successful re-The Vultures Back to LIFE rescue project aims to return vultures to the skies of the Balkans to connect vulture populations in Bulgaria and Greece with other populations in Crimea, the Alps and the Iberian Peninsula. In the 1980s vultures were considered extinct in the Balkans. Over the past two decades, an international conservation initiative has led to the successful reintroduction of griffon vultures in Bulgaria, restoring Bulgarian vulture populations.
The region around the town of Madžarovo is very beautiful and wild. Unspoiled nature has been preserved in many places. However, life here is not very friendly for the local residents, which is evidenced by the fact that in the city, which previously had 7 thousand inhabitants, there are now 360 permanent citizen. And I’m not talking about the surrounding municipalities. Of most of them, only the crumbling ruins of formerly beautiful half-timbered farmsteads remain. Our base for six nights was the field station of the Bulgarian Ornithological Society, which, on the other hand, is a beautiful new building above the valley of the Arda River, in a low oak grove overlooking the steep rock towers on which vultures nest. In addition, taking care of our comfort and our full stomachs is absolutely maximum!
As it happens, everything bad is good for something. Old dilapidated and uninhabited stone buildings with roofs made of red burnt roof tiles are inexhaustible nesting possibilities for owls, especially for the Little owl (Athene noctua). In any village, you just have to look around carefully and you will always find a few owls on some of the roofs or chimneys.
You will most likely get close to vultures at a place where there is some carcass. But even then you haven’t won. These huge birds, living in flocks, have quite complex social relationships with each other, including communication. The place where there is potential food in the form of a dead animal is first checked very carefully by the so-called scouts. They are some kind of scouts who often sit motionless for several hours near the food and survey the surroundings. If they find the place safe, they will give a signal to the other vultures in some unknown way and a mass feast will occur. The vigilance of the vultures is suddenly gone and their only concern is to get as much food as possible. It is needless to emphasize that the scrambles and fights for morsels end only with the complete consumption of everything that can be eaten. After that, the overfed vultures sit around for the rest of the day and just laze around. Only with dusk do these true rulers of the skies take off one by one, circle over the feasting place and fly off towards their roosts. Due to the very warm weather (around 10 degrees C), we observed some individuals already in the first half of January collecting material for building nests and even mating.
But a worn table does not only attract vultures. Hooded crows (Corvus cornix) and Common ravens (Corvus corax) will always take easily available calories. They are also usually the first to discover the food source and keep watch around it even in the morning darkness. In many cases, they have to wait. Although they have quite strong beaks, it is not enough to pick up the dead body of an animal. That has to be provided by larger predators. Often these are vultures or also foxes or jackals. We were not lucky with those. On the other hand, other feathered predators, especially buzzards (Buteo buteo) and Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), were very regular diners. These predators mainly arrived early in the morning or late in the evening, when the croaking ravens and crows left the laid table.
Spending a few days in the company of the vulture rulers of the heavens in their natural habitat was a unique experience. I would like to repeat a similar trip sometime, probably in the spring months, in order to catch the third representative of the vulture family – the scavenger vulture. And he also experienced again the pleasant feeling of Bulgarian nature and great people who have dedicated their lives to saving vultures. The valley of the river Arda is a real safe haven for vultures in Bulgaria, their real fortress.